Face scanning is more expensive, more difficult to do and arguably less secure and robust than fingerprint scanning.



The UIDAI, the agency that looks after India’s Aadhaar programme, came up with one good idea a few months ago. It was the virtual ID, which would be linked to the real Aadhaar ID and will potential curtail the risk of identity theft. That was supposed to be available from March 1. Supposed to be.

Now, instead of making that a priority – wonder if it was just an empty promise – the UIDAI is talking of face recognition feature. This, the agency wants to roll out from July 1, so that people whose fingerprints don’t work can be identified and Aadhaar-ified (I suppose it can be called that) using face scanning and identification.

Just like almost every other idea the UIDAI has come up with, this one too looks shoddy and poorly conceived. In fact, it is arguably the worst idea the UIDAI has come up with. And there are two reasons for that: One, it is impractical and potentially something that can’t work. And two, it is going to heighten the fears of surveillance to new level.

aadhaar_032718121823.jpgImage: Reuters photo

Let me explain. What we have seen so far is that the UIDAI is an agency that is utterly incompetent. Now there can be many reasons why it is so, but if you look at Aadhaar and how it has been rolled out, it is easy to see its implementation is poor from almost every angle.

Legally, it is under serious challenge in the Supreme Court. As a policy, it has created more problems for the poor and the vulnerable instead of solving issues. There are serious doubts on all the savings claims. And technology-wise, or in the way it operates leaking data everywhere, it is so bad that an Australian security researcher called it a project that is worse than what college kids can create. And of course, for the last several months there is a French security researcher who is toying with Aadhaar almost every day with impunity.

Now, this same agency, which is the UIDAI, wants to roll out the face scanning to Aadhaar project. Face scanning is more expensive, more difficult to do and arguably less secure and robust than fingerprint scanning. To do face scanning well, you need specialised and costly hardware. The only mass market technology that has done face scanning somewhat well is the iPhone X and for that Apple spent several years perfecting the technology and millions of dollars acquiring expensive and delicate components like infra-red scanner and depth sensing modules. These components are apparently so delicate, and in short supply, that even companies like Samsung that too are willing to spend millions have to wait for another one or two years before they can get them in any volume.

But chances are that when UIDAI talks of face scanning, it is not probably thinking of using the technology that is available in the iPhone X. It is almost certainly thinking of cheaper technology, which is a camera and some lines of code. That is why it says that Aadhaar will use existing photographs of Aadhaar holders for it. It will be disastrous. Not only such a technology less robust than even the fingerprint sensors, which aren’t as accurate as they should, but it will be also more prone to misuse. There are some Android phones, even the expensive ones, that have implemented face scanning. But these can be easily fooled with a photograph. Aadhaar face scanning machines will be the same, probably half of the time failing to work and at other occasions fooled with just a photograph.

The second problem is potentially a bigger issue with the face scanning. Already, there are fears that Aadhaar may aid, or even bring about, a surveillance apparatus. Add to that the face scanning and it will be scary if used to its whole surveillance potential. This is not a fiction.

In China, in some parts, face scanning is already used on people. Basically, the government in these areas knows where you are going because its cameras recognise you, even if not always. This happens in Xinjiang. Here is how the Bloomberg  reports about it:

“The alert project links security cameras to a database of people who have attracted the attention of authorities and tracks their movements within a particular area, the person said. The police can follow up by intercepting individuals or visiting their homes and questioning their friends and families.”

As I have noted earlier, a lot of problems and fears related to Aadhaar aren’t with how it is right now. The issues are with what it can be in future. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And of all these “good intentions” that the UIDAI has come with so far, the face scanning looks like the one that may have the direst consequences in future, if it is rolled out.